UK Security Minister Says al-Qaeda Is Resurgent and Looking to Target Air Transport

Britain’s Security Minister, Ben Wallace, told The Sunday Times that “al-Qaeda is resurgent and seeking to carry out new terrorist atrocities against airliners and airports.”

Wallace told the newspaper that intelligence had revealed that al-Qaeda was developing technology to bring down passenger jets. One of the UK’s primary airports, Gatwick, was brought to a standstill by reported rogue drone operations just before Christmas. Wallace has since confirmed that anti-drone systems are now able to be deployed for the whole of the UK, no doubt in a move to prevent any copycat activity. Gatwick alone has reportedly spent £5 million on anti-drone technology in recent days. Two people were arrested and released without charge in connection with the incidents. A full and independent enquiry has been called for.

Wallace had met with airport bosses just days before the Gatwick incident, to discuss the new menace from al-Qaeda, which also includes the “insider threat” of jihadist sleeper agents working undercover at airports.

“The aviation threat is real,” he told The Sunday Times. “Aviation is still a blue riband event for these terrorists. Al-Qaeda are resurgent. They have reorganized. They are pushing more and more plots towards Europe and have become familiar with new methods and still aspire to aviation attacks.”

Wallace said ministers have ploughed £25 million into a joint Home Office and Department for Transport research program “on how to protect our planes even more from new chemicals, different methods of explosion and insider threats”.

“Al-Qaeda sat quietly in the corner and tried to work out what the 21st century looked like, while Isis became the latest terrorist boy band, but they have not gone away — they have reorganized. You’re seeing al-Qaeda appear in areas we thought were dormant,” he said.

Wallace said improvements in airport security meant terrorists were less likely to smuggle explosive through terminal security systems: “They have explored other ways of getting bombs on planes. We’ve talked publicly about an insider threat issue. If you can’t get in the front door, you’re going to try to get in the back door.”

Al-Qaeda’s spiritual leader is still Osama bin Laden’s former deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri. But Wallace said a new generation of leaders had “stepped up” and were “taking more decisions”. He said that while al Qaeda was engaged on a “reunion tour” plotting “directed” attacks in the West, the Isis threat was now mainly one of inspiring home-grown jihadists to launch attacks in the UK.

“It is a different type of challenge, when people are sitting in their bedrooms on the internet, to predict their behavior,” he said. “Some of these guys talk about doing attacks for years. You can’t keep them under surveillance for years. They suddenly decide, ‘It’s Tuesday and I am going to go jump in a car and run over someone’.”

Wallace told the newspaper that 13 Islamist terror plots have been thwarted in Britain since March 2017.

Kylie Bull has 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. She is an editor and contributor for Jane's by IHS Markit, a columnist for security and counter-terror publications, and a former managing editor for Homeland Security Today.

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